Maybe it was the music

February 1, 2010 | 42 comments

One day last year I told an atheist acquaintance that I’d cried at Mass that morning. It was one of those times that I just felt overwhelmed with the presence of God, I explained. I was so perfectly at peace, so surrounded by love that I couldn’t help but be moved to tears.

“Maybe it was the music, ” he responded. He went on to offer an erudite analysis of how music is known to produce certain positive sensations in the brain, noting that religious leaders from time immemorial have used the evolved human response to the stimulus of music as a way to delude the faithful into believing that they’ve experience the divine.

I had to smile at his suggestion, because I actually agreed with part of his argument.

I’ve mentioned before that I never had a “religious experience” before my conversion (and, in fact, not until well after I considered myself a Christian). I couldn’t even imagine what that might be like. Do harp-playing angels appear in front of you? Or do you hear a booming voice in your head? I had no idea.

There had been a handful of moments in my life, however, when I experienced something that was unlike anything else I’d ever felt. Every now and then — no more than once or twice a year — I’d feel overcome with this odd sensation, this ecstatic elation on top of inner stillness that was so powerful that it made me feel as if I’d dipped my head into some other dimension. It was a moment of feeling compelled to relax, to let go, to just trust (trust in what or whom I didn’t know, but that was definitely an overriding feeling when I had those experiences). Those moments were…well, if I hadn’t been so certain that nothing existed beyond the material world, I might have said “spiritual.” And they always occurred when I was listening to music.

It seemed kind of illogical, really, that a mere arrangement of certain sounds in a certain order could transport me, for however brief a moment, into such a sublime state. I was aware of all the natural explanations for music’s impact on the human brain; yet when I’d read about how the cochlea transmits information along the auditory nerve as neural discharges into the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe, I’d think, “Uhh, yeah, that’s true…but I feel like there’s something more going on as well.”

One of the many things that rang true when I began studying Catholic theology was the emphasis on art — music, in particular — as a reflection of God. As I said in another post, I came to see art as a secret handshake of beings with souls: we share 96% of our DNA with chimps, but chimps don’t write symphonies. Dogs don’t rap. Dolphins can be trained to reproduce musical rhythms, but they don’t sing songs. Only the creature made in the image and likeness of God can speak the secret language of music.

In other words, I realized that all those experiences I’d had while listening to music were so tremendous because they were experiences of my soul having a brush with its Creator.

Pope Benedict once said:

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said:

“Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”

The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.

Christianity doesn’t deny that beautiful music can move us to feel something; in fact, it acknowledges it and then takes it a step farther by articulating exactly what it is we’re feeling. And that’s why I smiled when I heard my atheist friend’s comment. It is actually because I am a Christian that I take that moment at Mass when I became filled with so much love and hope that I felt like I could explode with joy, and I say: Yes, maybe it was the music.



  1. Anonymous

    You are such a great writer. I can't wait to read your book.

  2. ViolinMama

    AMEN!!! AMEN!!

  3. Jamie

    Jennifer, you never cease to bring me to tears with your writing. When discussing gifts, yours is truly one you have cultivated well and generously share with so many. Thank you for that.

    I sing in a small church choir and I am often moved to tears just by the fifteen or so of us that gather together – some older people, some middle aged moms and a few teenage devotees. We are a strange group, but wow, when we all sing with our hearts, it is absolutly beautiful. And then I end up blogging about it! Thank you for composing these beautiful thoughts in this way. While I knew the phrase something like "to sing well is to pray twice", I never quite considered that those sensations one feels when hearing moving music, may be God's way of showing his appreciation and satisfaction with us.

  4. Sarah

    I've experienced just what you're talking about, usually in church but not only there. Yes, there's something about music that makes me feel like I can reach out my hands (I usually raise them to the sky) and touch God. I feel him in me and all around me, and I feel connected to believers all around the world and all through time. This must be how it will feel to worship the Creator together in Heaven.

  5. Kathleen@so much to say, so little time

    Oh, thank you for this. In seven years of studying classical music, I had many of those moments outside church, and in twenty-five years of liturgical music ministry, I have felt many more. And now that I write music (however sporadically) for the Church, it's wonderful to hear this testimonial.

  6. deanna

    Someone once said we come to faith by truth, beauty or goodness, so being moved by any of those can lead us to God. (sorry I can't recall who said it.)

  7. Lover of the World

    This is so true!

    You have a gift for writing. I love how you've phrased this all. I know what you mean when you talk about those moments when you're just overwhelmed with emotion. They happen to me, at church often, and always with music.

    I've never read what Pope Benedict said before, but it's wonderful! And so true. Some music is so lovely, and so deep, that you can't ignore that it is inspired by someone upstairs!

    So thanks for this post, it's really great, and it captures what I feel so often!

  8. Agnes Regina

    Thanks a million for the wonderful quote from His Holiness, and … I totally know how you feel!!! I've cried at Mass so many times, and as you say, maybe it was the music – but there was a lot more, too.

  9. Flexo

    Any atheist who truly treasured reason would admit the existence of the transcendent.

    Some music is, indeed, a doorway into the transcendent and, hence, to God.

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  11. Michelle

    Thank you for this! I know at times i, too, feel God in the music. It's such a wonderful encounter.

    God Bless!

  12. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jennifer, I remember going to a Lori Line concert quite a few years ago and being moved to tears. Lori Line isn't a religious musician, and I have no idea where she or her musicians fall in their faith life, but I was convinced that what was coming out of their fingers and mouths was a direct gift from God. I also had the awareness that some of them may not have known this, but it was an overwhelming feeling of recognizing God's gifts even if the giver might not. God can reach us in whatever way He chooses, even through the mouth of an unbeliever. Your friend actually clarified your faith thoughts through unbelieving words — how profound!

  13. Suburban Correspondent

    There is one song in the missal/hymnal that gets me every single time. Tears simply pouring down my face in Mass – it is embarrassing. "Do not be afraid, I am with you…" Can't remember the number "I have (something) called you by name…"

    Music is magical; I imagine heaven as being all music and colors, beautiful colors. No one speaks, they all sing.

    • Wsquared

      I know that this is a response a year too late, but the hymn you describe is David Haas, “You Are Mine.”

      And yes, the first time I ever heard it– and it was after an agnostic period, at that– I cried during Mass.

  14. itchingfootnotes

    There are some pieces of music that have consistently brought me to tears. Gorecki's Symphony Number Three is one. I had the privilege of hearing Gorecki himself conduct a performance when I lived in Poland, and I cried almost the whole time.

    The other piece that always moves me is Mahler's Second, particularly the final ten minutes, from the a capella entrance of the chorus. The two times I've heard it performed should have been enough to hint — forcefully — at the existence of something larger.

  15. Marla Taviano

    Love it. God is the original Creator, Artist, Musician (He sings over us!) and Writer. All of our creative expression springs from being made in His image.

  16. autumnesf

    I can't tell you how many sermons I've sat through telling the dangers and evils of music. And mentioning that satan was the angel in charge of music. And how all those people that were moved by the music were not truly experiencing God – but emotion…the devils tool.


    David was a man after God's heart and he was all about music.

    I do believe music can be used to evoke emotion…but I don't believe that it can only be used by the devil or man. God surrounds himself with music and singing also ("Holy, Holy, Holy!").

  17. Little M

    Well said! Thanks for the great post 🙂

  18. Babs

    My most memorable experiences of feeling like joy would burst my heart, were singing Beethoven's Ninth, (Ode to Joy), and Mahler's
    2nd Symphony, (Resurrection). While listening to this music can lift you to the clouds, singing it is intensely spiritual, and like nothing else I've experienced.

  19. Monnie

    Have you heard of the Music of the Spheres? It is a philosophical concept that each of the nine choirs of angels has its own tone or its own melody and that together the nine choirs create an unearthly – a heavenly – harmony.

    An extension of this would say that, at least figuratively, every creature has a tone of its own that, when combined with those of other creatures, in God's realm, creates a unique melody.

    I don't know if I've made that very clear – you may be better off researching "Music of the Spheres"! 🙂 But music certainly does have a spiritual quality to it.
    Thank you for this post! Every post of yours is a winner in my books!

  20. That Married Couple

    I love how you don't just brush off the secular view, but understand it and incorporate it into its proper spiritual dimensions. Great post, as always!

  21. Ray Ingles

    Flexo – Any atheist who truly treasured reason would admit the existence of the transcendent.

    Sure, they just understand "transcendent" rather differently. Take how Jennifer put it: …yet when I'd read about how the cochlea transmits information along the auditory nerve as neural discharges into the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe, I'd think, "Uhh, yeah, that's true…but I feel like there's something more going on as well."

    Thinking that even such a wonderful thing as musical ecstasy can be accounted for in 'natural' terms doesn't have to mean that such things are devalued and degraded. No, 'atheists who truly treasure reason' just have more respect for what the 'natural' can do.

    Look up the Mandelbrot Set:
    (Go ahead and click. Unless you scroll down and see the images, you won't understand what I'm saying.)

    An incredibly simple formula, that defines a literally infinitely complex – and beautiful – shape. What if something as simple as cochleal hairs and neurons gave rise to our appreciation of Bach? Why would that be so terrible?

  22. MB

    Well said, Jennifer.

    One of my very favortie books is "The evidential Power of Beauty" by Fr. Thomas Dubay. Parts of the book itself make me weep. What a benevolant, loving God we have that he gave us so much beauty in the world to enjoy, and the senses with which to experience it.

    Mary Beth

  23. Eric

    Splendid post, and very encouraging for me to read as a church musician / composer. In fact I was just blogging the other day about some ways scientific attempts to "explain" music fall short or become circular. My composition professor once said, "Music itself is sufficient proof of the existence of God."

    Love this blog, though I haven't been commenting often… that may change!

  24. A Blues Brother

    I am an atheist, but I can appreciate the effect of music. . .I love playing blues on my instrument, can be just as religoius particularly with a little bourbon thrown in.

  25. Clare

    Beautiful post. For me, realizing I believed in the Catholic Church was when, kneeling during the communion song, I had this overwhelming sense of the presence of God being there with me–and this was at a parish where I really dislike the music! It might sound silly, but the popular music at mass was a really big issue for me coming into the Church. After that, my taste in the music at mass stopped being a stumbling block, thankfully. I will be baptized at Easter vigil this year, please keep me in your prayers. Jen, thank you so much for your blog, it has been such a blessing to me.

  26. Karyn

    @ Suburban Correspondent That hymn gets me everytime too!

  27. Therese Z

    "Ave Verum Corpus" – I'm a goner by the fourth bar. I always figured it was the sentimental part of my love for God and His Church, because it's predictable – I always cry during it, just like I always cry when I sing "God Bless America."

    Separately from that, there are times when a hymn or song will catch me up – I figure that's all the ecstasy I'm going to get on this earth! And that's where your article rings true for me.

  28. el-e-e

    Last night I took my 5-yr-old to the Life Teen Mass. It's never been a favorite of mine because of the praise band (I'm a classical choral student, myself!). However, sometimes those acoustic guitars really get to me. Last night was definitely one of those times. I have nothing going on in my life about which I feel like crying, and yet… something spoke to me. Being in that big room, with all those people (teenagers, even!) singing in prayer, praise — the force of Love was so apparent, it brought tears to my eyes. More than once. So awesome.

  29. Anonymous

    I felt an uncontrollable urge to ball my eyes out during the whole mass every Sunday when I went to mass after my father passed away. I felt like someone was there comforting me, putting their arm around me, saying "It's going to be ok". I had never cried so much in my life. Before my father died, I never wanted to go to mass, but after, … I did.

  30. Solveig

    Yes, yes, and a thousand times, yes. And so many of the comments were wonderful, too. Especially the quote of the professor who said music itself is sufficient proof of the existence of God. An honest soul, he was. And so are you. Thank you.

  31. Flexo

    Ray — I do not understand your point. You say that atheists do not deny the transcendent, "they just understand 'transcendent' rather differently," but then you go on to describe the natural. And that is what I do not understand, because you appear to be describing your understanding of the transcendent in nontranscendent terms. That is not a case of understanding the transcendent differently, that is, instead, a denial of the existence of the transcendent altogether.

    The transcendent, by definition, transcends, i.e. goes beyond, the natural. That does not mean that nature is "devalued and degraded," but only that there is a reality that is beyond the known physical universe, beyond what one can see or touch or hear or smell or taste.

    Music — or good music at any rate — goes beyond mere hearing. It goes beyond mere sound waves causing vibrations in the ear drum, which in turn cause electrical stimulation to the brain, which then interacts with biochemical markers set down in the brain tissue so as to cause a "thought" or emotional response to that sound. That is to say, such music transcends the physical corporeal temporal brain into a higher reality. It is most certainly transcends the determinism that is dictated by a purely and solely physical reality.

  32. Shealynn

    Mrs. Fulwiler, this is a great post. I have been following your blog for a little while and am struck by your funny/deep/moving approaches… and your search and understanding of Truth.
    I was on the computer working on my essay (let me ask a question– what kind of ninth grade teacher gives an essay on "What makes art valuable and good?"?!!!!) and had just finished when I opened up your blog.
    I'm relieved to see I was headed in the right direction with my essay! I'm probably one of the few who took the approach of "truth is what makes art good".
    It seems a funny coincidence, but maybe it isn't. I was all discouraged about my essay, thinking it would get torn to shreds. But seeing that a great, thinking Catholic like you takes the exact same approach cheered me up. 🙂 lol

    Wow… long comment. I just wanted to say thanks for all your work with the blog!

  33. Ray Ingles

    Flexo – There's a bit of a terminology problem. Atheists can certainly see and experience beauty and truth and so forth. It's not that they deny them, they just understand the phenomena differently.

    Music appreciation happens at a different ontological level than that of chemical reactions – but it's not inconsistent with them.

    For example, does a tornado exist as such, or is it something air does? I suppose you could look at it as not 'really' existing, or being 'just' air molecules… but I'd still suggest hunkering down if one gets near.

    I'd say the appreciation of beauty exists as much – and in much the same way – as tornadoes or the Mandelbrot Set exist. A pattern is a different thing from the substrate it's laid upon – but that doesn't mean the pattern is supernatural.

    (Oh, and "determinism" has been only of philosophical interest since Newton's time, when it was discovered that the orbits of even three bodies were too complex to fully predict. This was later elaborated into "chaos theory", where even things that are 'classically deterministic' end up being impossible to fully predict in practice. And then there's Quantum Mechanics, which seriously calls into question the idea that things are 'classically deterministic' at all…)

  34. Weezer

    Your posts are full of enlightenment and connection with our God. Thank you for putting into words what so many feel but are unable to express.
    Music is a source of expression for me. I have never learned to play an instrument or sing but it connects me to so many things in my life. I can hear a song and reconnect with my past. Music is everywhere and connects the heart with the soul. I, too, have cried in church as God's presence warms and comforts me. Thank you for your words. I love your blog.

  35. LethaChristina Chamberlain

    As also a writer/poet/visual artist/musician (and also music therapy major), we learned in these music therapy courses about how to soothe/or invigorate/ or increase IQ (yes, there IS actually music that does this–namely Mozart), and treat all manner of illness/distress… AND as a solitary contemplative, who can only listen to classical music/Gregorian chant/early music forms–due to my own proclivities, I know poorly-performed music in Church CAN also prove effacacious in learning forgiveness/patience/love as well as deepening the prayer to over-look or "not hear" the mistakes or whatever. Having moved from a Cathedral in a urban area where the music was sublime–to a small-town Church with much less available resources. As for those who feel they will not feel ecstasy other than music–don't discount the power of God, Who calls you in this way, too…
    Try depth prayer–there are many paths to this; but take the time to do it regularly!

  36. My Chocolate Heart


    One of my favorite posts ever. It is so true… it is music that moves my soul toward God.

    You said it well.

  37. The Catholic Wife

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I love it! I feel the same way about sex.

  38. Kate


    I'm not sure if you view comments to old posts. But anyway, I agree with your thoughts about God and music. Here's another thought: perhaps God made it difficult for us to decipher the accent of a singer because He wanted to unite us and keep us from thinking about our differences and instead to focus on the music itself.
    And perhaps you are right in that chimps don't participate in music- but some of them are rather artistic! I learned about Koko the Gorilla in an anthropology class. He creates art and even titles the works by communicating to his human friends using sign language. At one point, he had a an entire gallery to showcase his work. If you want to learn more check out this website:

  39. Dik

    Welcome to the sacramental world, where God uses the material to transcend us to the spiritual.

  40. Leah

    Thanks for this. I’ve had an interesting religious life, raised Mormon, left that to become a seeker, found “the truth” in atheism, got bored with that and am now seeking again, but music was one thing that stuck with me through it all and makes me believe there’s something more.

    I enjoy your blog.


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